The search for extraterrestrial life begins with a simple assumption: if intelligent life exists, then these beings must leave behind clues to their existence that would be recognizable to us. For example, to a space-faring alien, a tell-tale sign of intelligent life existing on Earth could be that there are trace periodic elements present that can only form from nuclear fission. Fission is not generally known to occur naturally except under specific conditions, so it is logical that there is an unnatural explanation. Sherlock Holmes once said that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth…” With this in mind, we count down the Top 5 signs that alien life is out there in the cosmos.
1. RKVs are a thing and they’re all terrified of them
A Relativistic Kill Vehicle (RKV) is a conceptual weapons system. Basically, an object is accelerated at some fraction of the speed of light, granting it an extraordinarily large amount of kinetic energy. You may know science-fiction examples of this idea in the form of the rail-gun. Even at low fractions of c, the speed of light, the object still possesses enough energy to dwarf atomic bombs.
And, what makes this weapon so dangerous is that it would be difficult to detect and intercept before it makes its mark. Even destroying the object might cause damage, since the debris would be traveling just as fast. The RKV may not even hit its intended target; the target could move, and then the RKV would strike some other object or continue hurtling through space for thousands, or millions, of years.
Many have wondered why the galaxy seems so quiet; that is, if there are lots of life-bearing planets out there, why have we not found any extraterrestrial civilizations? The relativistic kill vehicle may be the answer why.
Intelligent lifeforms may hide their own positions out of fear of these weapons, never broadcasting their existence to the galaxy at large. Indeed, in the event of war, the gloves would quickly come off and these insane missiles would be fired at will, wreaking havoc across the cosmos long after the conflict has ended.
2. Tabby’s Star
KIC 8462852, or “Tabby’s Star,” is a star located in the constellation Cygnus, 1480 light-years from Earth. This star is famous for exhibiting an unusual fluctuation in light output that suggests the presence of an enormous alien megastructure.
Tabby’s Star has been observed as early as 1890 but it did not show any changes in luminosity. On March 5 2011, Tabby’s Star dipped in brightness by 15%, then on 28 February 2013 by 22%. If an object obscured the star, it would have to be up to half the star’s width.
Many explanations for this event abound. The obscuring object could be galactic material coalescing around a star, or a planetary debris field from the star’s system, pulled in by the great force of gravity.
Jason Wright, Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, proposed that the object could be an extraterrestrial civilization’s megastructure of a type called a Dyson Swarm in science fiction. Dyson Swarms are structures built around a star to harness the star’s energy output. A very advanced civilization would need huge amounts of energy, and also have the logistical and scientific capabilities needed for such a project.
Future examinations of the star are planned. If Tabby’s Star continues to dim—particularly in a pattern that may contain information—then it could be a bonafide sign of extraterrestrial life.
3. The Wow! signal
SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, is a research cooperative funded and staffed by many universities across the globe. One of SETI’s most famous findings was the Wow! Signal, detected by Ohio State University astronomer Jerry Ehman in August 1977.
This unusually strong radio signal appeared to originate from the constellation Sagittarius and lasted for 72-seconds while OSU’s Big Ear telescope could detect it.
This signal hasn’t been found again despite dedicated search efforts. In these situations, scientists do not jump to conclusions (especially in a sensitive subject like extraterrestrial life). So, there were attempts to find a natural phenomenon that could cause such an event. Research indicates that the signal is unlikely to have come from Earth as its frequency band is reserved for astronomy, and it is also unlikely that it reflected off of space debris. A published paper’s hypothesis states that the signal could have been caused by a comet.
Ehman himself belives that the signal was the product of an extraterrestrial civilization. If the intent of an intelligent being is to attempt to contact other life, it would make sense to communicate in a fashion both parties can understand. Curiously, the signal’s frequency was found to be 1420.46 MHz, close to hydrogen’s radiation intensity. Hydrogen is the periodic table’s first element. Presumably, intelligent life must know chemistry as a result of scientific development, so this is one way to denote intelligence.
What is notable about the Wow! Signal is that it is just a signal; that is, it does not contain information. This is what makes it a signal and not a message. Could this event be akin to a galactic doorbell ring, a civilization making itself known to the galaxy?
4. A signal YOU detected?
SETI researchers alone cannot pour through the vast amounts of data they receive from their equipment, so, members of the University of California, Berkeley staff developed [email protected]. This project uses distributed computing to analyze radio signals detected from space. In layman’s terms, SETI sends the data to volunteers of the project, whose computers are used to comb through the data. The volunteers then send the data back to SETI; this practice vastly reduces the amount of time needed to analyze data using borrowed computers.
In general, the software attempts to find potential signals amid junk data by searching for anomalies. These anomalies include spikes in signal intensity, which may mean the telescope moved over an artificial source; and pulsing signals, which are patterns in signal intensity.
This project allows you, the layman, to participate in the search for extraterrestrial life. And if you’ve ever heard that the odds of finding the needle in the haystack were low, you’re wrong. SETI Institute Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak has stated that, according to the Drake Equation (an argument used to estimate the number of extraterrestrial, spacefaring civilizations in the galaxy), we will have a conclusive signal somewhere between 2020 and 2025.
Setting up [email protected] and the associated BOINC client is easy and tutorials are available. You can even set it up so it becomes your screen saver, and you can watch your computer examine data. If by chance the stars align, and the data sent to you contains the message we’re all looking for, then let your computer do its work.
5. The sheer scale of the universe
How can they NOT exist?